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Sunday, April 08, 2007

A look at the linebackers

Priorities are what often drive a draft more than anything else. As much as teams like to pay lip service to the old "best player available" mantra, let's be honest about something for a second: Few teams, if any, actually work their draft in that matter.

We're going to take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, position by position, over the next month as we try to get a better handle on what directions the team will go on April 28 and 29.

Today: The linebackers

Joey Porter's release prior to the opening of free agency this offseason leaves a void in the Steelers' lineup that could give us a good glimpse of where the Steelers may be looking for the most help in this year's draft.

New head coach Mike Tomlin has said repeatedly that he feels that James Harrison can step into Porter's spot at outside linebacker and do the job. And Harrison has certainly done so for a game here and a game there in the past.

But we haven't seen the 6-0, 242-pound Harrison play the spot on a weekly basis.

Harrison should be able to match Porter's seven sacks of last season. Rushing the passer is his specialty as he uses his stature to get up under potential blockers and then his impressive power to go through them.

The Steelers, however, also ask their linebackers to do a lot of the run stopping and dropping into pass coverage as well. And there, Harrison may not be up to Porter's level.

On the other side, veteran Clark Haggans recorded nine sacks in just 13 games in 2005, but tailed off to six sacks in 15 games in 2006. The Steelers need a return to form by Haggans in 2007 and must also begin thinking about replacing the 30-year-old at some point in the future.

On the inside, James Farrior and Larry Foote were solid in 2006 as the Steelers ranked among the best run-stopping teams in the NFL. Part of the reason for that was the excellent play of the defensive line, but Farrior and Foote ranked first and second on the team tackles, with 154 and 118, respectively. The duo also recorded four sacks each, while also picking off a pass each.

They aren't the problem on this defense, though again, the Steelers have to start thinking about replacing the 32-year-old Farrior at some point. Farrior is still effective due to his great instincts, but he's obviously lost a step.

There's not a lot of depth behind those four – hence the Steelers flirtations with several free agent linebackers this offseason. Despite all their efforts, the Steelers have been unable to bring in any veteran help at the position and will head into the draft with a group of backups that includes Arnold Harrison on the outside and Rian Wallace, Clint Kriewaldt and Richard Siegler on the inside.

As you can see, the depth inside isn't bad – though there’s no obvious eventual replacement for Farrior. It's the outside linebacker depth that is lacking.

Arnold Harrison showed some potential in a pair of starts when Porter and James Harrison were out with injuries, but still has a way to go as a pass rusher at the NFL level.

Because of that lack of depth, the Steelers are considering using defensive end Brett Keisel at outside linebacker at times – especially if they are unable to acquire a top-flight talent at the position in the draft.

Kriewaldt is a serviceable veteran backup who excels on special teams, while Wallace has yet to impress despite spending the past two seasons on the roster. Siegler looked good in training camp last season, but the Steelers released the former San Francisco 49ers' draft choice at the end of camp. He was re-signed later in the season when injury problems depleted the team's depth.

Given that we know the Steelers plan to continue running the 3-4 defense, the linebackers will remain one of the focal points of the team. But the Steelers need a difference maker at the position, something that is lacking with the current group.
Because of that, it wouldn't be surprising to see the team select two or even three linebackers in the upcoming NFL draft. It may make the most sense to get somebody who could be ready to play now, even as a situational player to compliment Harrison, while also taking a project later in the draft who may be Haggans' replacement down the road.

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